|Title||Neat and Tasty: Getting Dressed in Rural New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Visitor Article|
Rural New Englanders arose every morning during the early 1800s and put on clothes, just as you did this morning. Their clothes protected them from cold and heat, reflected personal preferences in cut, style, color, and decoration, and represented the prevailing fashion. Our costumed Village interpreters dress each day in the style of the late 1830s. Women wear long dresses and caps or bonnets, while men wear tailcoats and top hats or frocks and caps.
While our early nineteenth-century Village offers visitors the daily opportunity to explore 1830s fashions, a new exhibit, "Neat and Tasty: Getting Dressed in Rural New England," highlights aspects of early dress that are not so easy to see in the Village. On a rotating basis, this exhibit will focus on fancy dress, children's costume, underwear and outerwear, and changes in fashion over the decades. In this gallery, located in the Bullard Tavern Ladies Parlor, we will also exhibit costume-related artifacts from our collections, allowing us to compare and contrast the clothing we wear today with that of our early nineteenth-century rural New England counterparts, helping us to determine what makes an outfit "neat and tasty."
The first installation of "Neat and Tasty" explores two themes: the style of the Empire period from 1800 to 1820 and children's costume during the 1830s. Clothes worn in New England between 1800 and 1820 followed a larger cultural trend, incorporating stylish elements from ancient Greek and Roman decorative arts. Empire style takes its name from the Empire of Napoleon, who ruled France from 1799 to 1815. Napoleon's interest in ancient Roman and Greek culture inspired this style in France, which then spread to England and America, where its connection to the democratic models provided by ancient Greek and Roman history only strengthened its popularity.
Empire fashions were inspired by the styles seen on ancient Greek and Roman vases, wall paintings, and other art unearthed by archaeological excavations during the mid-1700s. Women's gowns—or dresses—provide the most direct connection to this source. They are easily recognized by their high waistlines and long, straight skirts resembling architectural columns. White was a popular color for dresses during this period, probably inspired by the look of such classical structures as the Parthenon, as well as statuary and cameo jewelry.
The dress on display in the Bullard Tavern exhibit was reproduced from an example in our Village collections. The original is made from a cotton print with blue geometric motifs on a white ground, perhaps resembling the "sprigged muslin gown" that Ruth Henshaw Bascom of Leicester, Mass., made in May 1813, according to her diary (now in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society). Although white was popular, it was by no means exclusive; Bascom describes "striped cotton" and "pink calico" examples in her diary, and there are examples in the Village collections made from pink and lavender silk, as well as dark printed cotton.
The Empire style of dress freed women from tight corsets and yards of voluminous fabric, giving them easier movement and greater mobility. While American women generally enjoyed this freedom, some New Englanders did not shy away from voicing their disapproval of the fashion. In 1811, the Rev. Timothy Dwight expressed his criticism plainly: "A young lady dressed á la greque in a New England winter violates alike good sense, correct taste, sound morals, and the duty of self-preservation." By 1820, women's skirts were once again widening and their waistlines were dropping.
During the early nineteenth century, men's fashions did not change as noticeably as women's. Identifying the differences between the suit of men's clothes on exhibit at the Bullard Tavern and the 1830s-style garments worn in the Village requires close study. The shirt on display, which follows the same basic pattern used from the Renaissance through the mid-1800s, has a ruffle on the front. This detail was not fashionable during the 1830s in New England but was popular two decades earlier. Pantaloons, or long pants, were just coming into fashion in the 1810s. Ruth Henshaw Bascom made two pairs of "checked pantaloons" in June 1812, according to her diary. Prior to the early 1800s, men wore tight-fitting breeches that ended at the knee. Pantaloons have a loose seat to allow movement, but fit tightly in the legs, often ending above the ankle, sometimes with a slit in the hem.
Throughout the first half of the 1800s, children's clothing was made at home and followed the pattern and style of adult clothing except for variations that symbolized childhood. As seen in our new exhibit, girls' dresses in the 1830s followed the fashion of their mothers' garments, with wide skirts and puffed sleeves. But girls' skirts were shorter, so they wore pantalettes that peeked out below their skirts. This style can be seen in William Matthew Prior's portrait of "Two girls of the Morse family and their dog, Minny," painted during the early 1840s. Boys, meanwhile, wore pantaloons or trousers with a shirt and a short jacket, called a spencer. A boy's spencer resembled his father's tailcoat, but without the tails.
Once girls and boys reached their teens, they donned "grown-up clothes." One New England woman remembered that she "first felt myself a woman . . . when I first discarded pantalettes."
No New Englander, whether man, woman, or child, was fully dressed without appropriate headwear and footwear. Although considered unsuitable for adults, red stockings were a favorite with children. Nineteenth-century examples in the Village collection are notable for the density of the tightly knit wool, which helped form the stocking so that it would not stretch out of shape, while also keeping the warmth next to the skin.
In the early 1800s, many New Englanders bought their shoes off the shelf at country stores like Asa Knight's, much as we do today. By the 1830s, they preferred "straight" shoes—those not shaped for right and left, but that could be worn on either foot—which helped the wearer to achieve a more slender-looking foot.
Headwear for boys and girls followed the fashion of their adult counterparts. Boys often wore caps modeled on the same pattern as those of their fathers'. However, top hats, the most popular form of headwear for men from the 1780s through the 1870s, were worn exclusively by men. Often made from wool felt with a beaver nap, these hats were commonly dyed black. Girls would wear bonnets resembling the shape and form of those worn by their mothers. During the colder months of the year, "pumpkin hoods"—or quilted bonnets—were popular with both women and girls. A child's quilted bonnet from the Village collection is in the new exhibit; one look is all you'll need to understand why they were called "pumpkin hoods."
We invite you to compare and contrast the clothing worn in our working rural New England village (along with the clothing you wear today!) with the examples on exhibit at the Bullard Tavern. Would your outfit be considered "neat and tasty"? And please keep your eyes open—the exhibit will take a look at winter clothing and dressy accessories later this fall.
"Neat and Tasty: Getting Dressed in Rural New England" is open during regular Village hours in the Ladies Parlor at the Bullard Tavern. This exhibit is made possible with the generous support of Cranston Print Works of Cranston, Rhode Island.
SourceOld Sturbridge Visitor, Fall 2003, 4-6.